Recently a friend suggested i write “stream of consciousness”. and discussed a successful novel by a New Zealander that seemed to him marred by a structure imposed on the writer’s stream of consciousness style. Not having read this writer, I don’t know what to say about that particular book.
My friend’s suggestion did make me think a bit, not only about my own writing, which has been heading in a different direction really, but about the writing known as stream of consciousness.
The thing about it is that it seldom, if ever, is what it seems. Of the writers I am familiar with who could be grouped under this rubric, none gives any evidence of really having written just as it came into her or his head. If any wrote a first draft like that, it changed fast enough before publication.
As readers of this blog will know, I greatly admire the French writer, Celine (Louis-Ferdinand Destouches). Celine was many things as a man, among them an anti-Semite, and the unpalatable parts of his personality I don’t admire at all. but as a writer, he had a gift that many other writers would love to share. Some of his most devoted followrs and emulators were themselves Jewish – one admirer, a teacher at Brandeis University in its early days, visited Celine in exile in Denmark and wrote a not especially good book about his disillusion with the writer as man, as if this should have been a surprise,*
Celine was a complex character and delving into his ideas about writing has any number of traps. He made things up, at will – about himself, his style, his reputation, his influence. What he really thought is never quite certain. Did he mean it when he said in his last book, “In two hundred years I’ll be helping the kids through high school”? Or did he mean it when he said, “My three little dots. All the real writers will tell you what to think of them.”
When Celine sounded serious, there was some meat to these bones. He said once that he might write 800,000 thousand words, only to pare them down to less than a quarter that number. And he went on to say that when people admired his style because it seemed as if he was talking, that he actually contrived this so as to give readers not the word they expected, but a different word.
Maybe getting it from 800,000 to less than 200,000 meant the result of stream of consciousness was only realised through rivers of sweat.
There are many writers who have been influenced by Celine and whose work seems “stream of consciousness”. Americans Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac are perhaps the two best known. To me, they are a struggle to get through – their work lacks the immediacy and fun of Celine’s best writing, perhaps because they really did just write it and put it out there, though I don’t really believe this. Serious writers write seriously. They try. They struggle.
I don’t know where my best writing comes from. From my brain obviously but from some time or place in it, where some little pinprick of inspiration puts a few things together. But I do know that as with Celine good writing does not come by itself; it comes through toil and revision. Writing is easy. Good writing is hard. Making words work together as they ought is the best thing I do, but I know that I fail and go on failing, and that my successes are only partial.
The book I am writing is on its fifth version. The fourth attempt I abandoned after nearly 10,000 words. This one is past 11,000 and it feels better, somehow. A lot of the writing is not much good, but the bible of writing I follow says to keep going, and that’s what I am doing. There is another draft, and then another, and another and another. . .and in the end, if it’s no good, there is version six!
Well, I would like that not to happen. The drafts are fine, but throwing away a manuscript. . .it’s hard. This version really does seem better even if there are some things I don’t like much about it, so far. Raymond Chandler is alleged to have written that when stuck for what to do next, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. It’s tempting; I’ve been thinking just along those lines. . .
Thanks for reading.
* Milton Hindus, Crippled Giant.